Maronite Figures Embracing “Syrian Nationalism”
By Dr. Edmond Melhem
Sa’adeh supported his arguments against Lebanese nationalism from within the literature of well-known Lebanese writers, clerics and even ardent advocates of Lebanese separation. He quoted some Maronite writers, like Jubran Khalil Jubran and Suleiman al-Bustani who both identified themselves as “Syrians”. “When Jubran saw the creation of Lebanese political entity”, Sa’adeh emphasised, “he could not let the occasion escape without writing an article the title of which was “You have your Lebanon and I will have mine”.
Sa’adeh was a firm believer in the idea of Syrian nationalism and determined to prove that this idea was not invented by himself, but was rooted amongst the Christian Lebanese and believed by both Orthodox and Maronites as well as by Muslims. Indeed, Jubran, as a famous writer and leading figure of the literary movement in North America, played a remarkable political and cultural role in the second decade of this century in order to maintain the unity of geographical Syria and the freedom of its religions. In many of his writings, he identified himself as “Syrian” and referred to his nation as the Syrian nation.
Another Maronite figure whom Sa’adeh quoted in his refutation of “Lebanese nationalism” was the Maronite Bishop of Beirut Yusuf Dibs (1833- 1907). This clergyman, Sa’adeh stated, “wrote the history of Syria and regarded her as his nation”. Furthermore, Sa’adeh delivered a speech on April 11, 1949, in which he made reference to another Maronite author, Amin al-Rayhani (1876- 1940), who was born in Frayki of Mount Lebanon, but unlike many Maronites of his time he enlarged his country beyond Mount Lebanon. When Amin al-Rayhani heard of the arrangements being made to sever Lebanon from Syria following the First World War, he voiced his rejection of this action and insisted on identifying himself as Syrian. In this context, he defined himself as:
Syrian first, Lebanese second, and Maronite third… I am Syrian born in Lebanon, and respect the source of my Arabic language… I am a Syrian-Lebanese who believes in the separation of religion from politics, because I realize that the main obstacle to national unity is religious partisanship.
Al-Rayhani also criticized the sectarian group whose members wanted to create a country on the basis of the “Lebanese idea”. He wrote:
… the Lebanese idea, i.e., the national sectarian idea, is an old and impotent idea. If we go by it, it will be a devastating blow to us. It was the cause of our defeat and misery in the past, and will be, if it prevails, the reason for our misery in the future… What a narrow conception of Lebanon.
To the Maronite figures mentioned by Sa’adeh a few more could be added, such as Elias Farhat, an émigré poet, and Khalil Karam, the chairman of the Association of Syrian Union in Brazil. The first wrote a letter from his residence in Brazil on June 25, 1933, to Muhammad Jamil Beyhum of Beirut appealing to him to form a political party in Lebanon that would work for Syrian unity, or rather “the fundamental purpose of which would be the endeavour to achieve Syrian unity.” The latter wrote a similar letter in the same year to Muhammad Jamil Beyhum declaring his support for the cause of Syrian unity. In his letter, he said: “This who is writing these lines is Lebanese born, belonging to the Christian Maronite sect and of a village in Kisrawan [Mount Lebanon]; a Lebanese seeking Syrian unity, which embraces Lebanon.” It is well to remember here that the SSNP was still a secret organization at the time. Those who demanded Syrian unity were most likely unaware of its existence.
It might be usefully added here that the available evidence indicates that Syrian nationalism expressed itself a long time before Sa’adeh, but “remained relatively inactive and unable to translate itself into an effective current.” As Adel Beshara has shown, “it was during the Egyptian reign over Syria that the first seed of Syrian nationalism was planted.” Beshara discusses various factors responsible, since the Egyptian invasion, for the creation of an environment favourable for a rejuvenation of Syrian identity. These factors included the expansion of missionary activity, the creation of literary societies, and “the spread of education among the general population through a network of schools, colleges, and other forms of educational institutions…”
As a result of these factors, the Syrian idea began to take its expression. Syrian scholars, like Butrus Bustani, Jurji Yanni, Elias Deeb Matar, Bishop Yusuf Dibs, and others, began to write on the history of Syria and propagate publicly the Syrian national idea.
Moreover, secret societies were established in the homeland to urge the Syrians to struggle for independence and revolution. Similarly, several societies and newspapers (such as al-Muqqattam and al-Hilal) were founded outside the country to speak for the Syrian national cause. To sum up, Syrian nationalism existed earlier than Sa’adeh’s time, but was unable to gain wide popular support because “it was consistently overshadowed by more dominant currents and ideas.” The most important of these currents, as discussed by Beshara, were: “Ottomanism”, “Pan-Islamism”, “Pan-Arabism”, and “Lebanese secessionism” which is discussed in this chapter and weighed against Sa’adeh’s “Syrian nationalism”.
Sa’adeh found stronger evidence within the literature produced by advocates of Lebanese separation to support his argument that the political separation of Lebanon from Syria did not mean that the Lebanese should dissociate themselves from Syrian nationalism. He emphasized:
As a matter of fact, even the most ardent Lebanese separationists never demanded, in the past, the creation of a Lebanese state. Even Shukri Ghanem, the leader of the separationist movement, who lived for many years in France and acquired French citizenship, had never acknowledged the existence of a Lebanese national entity.
It should be explained in this context that Shukri Ghanem was the founder of “Committee Central Syrien” [the Syrian Central Committee], formed in Paris in 1917 to speak for all Syrians. The program of this Committee was to achieve, as Ghanem wrote, “the deliverance of our country [Syria], and its accession to independence under the aegis of France”. At the same time, the Committee favoured “a Lebanese expansionist policy into the areas of Biqa’ and Ba’albek, which would become an agricultural preserve capable of stopping emigration”. The Committee also preferred the inclusion of the city of Beirut into Lebanon. All this suggests that although Shukri Ghanem and the members of his committee called for an enlarged Lebanon, they still considered themselves Syrians. On the whole, they were concerned about the independence of Syria, but opposed to the idea of Syria being included in an Arab kingdom. They envisaged the enlarged Lebanon as a province of Syria. As Shukri Ghanem wrote on behalf of the Committee, in an open letter to Clemenceau, the Syrians desired “the independence of Syria within her natural frontiers and organized into federative provinces with a democratic government under the aegis of France, a condition to which Lebanon subordinated her participation in the Syrian union.”
On February 13, 1919, Shukri Ghanem headed a ‘Syrian Commission’ to the Peace Conference and made a long speech in which he objected to Faysal as “representative of Hedjaz” to be speaking in the name of Syria for no affinities existed “between the nature of the Hedjazi and the Syrian, the nomad and the settler on the soil”. He also appealed for foreign help to lift Syria up and to accustom “the eyes of its inhabitants to the light of liberty”. As to what country among the powers that might be charged with supporting Syria, Ghanem chose France and, by doing so, he was a valuable man as far as French ambitions in Syria were concerned. He requested that
France may be charged with the reconstitution of an integral, independent, federated Syria… She, alone, in our opinion, is competent to obtain the whole effect for which we hope… She will be a guide speaking a language we understand, who will unite us towards our common destiny. She will be the arbiter before whom all mistrust will vanish and all conflict cease.